Talking to users

Talking to users is the most important thing to do in a startup. If you don’t talk to users, you’ll build your product in a vacuum and may end up with something nobody wants. If you’re not good at talking to users, in the best case, you’ll learn nothing from your conversations. But in the worst case, you’ll kill your product. This is a skill you’ll need to pick up early if you’re a founder.

The goal of talking to users is to get insights into the user’s world and the need for your product in this world. These insights will be your guiding light when making changes to your product.

1. Meet in real life

It’s better to meet your users in real life. Just try to smell good. People rarely enjoy being on a video call, but they may enjoy just sitting in a cafe to complain about their problems. I find it easier to meet people when I offer to meet them at their workplace or buy them a coffee at a nearby cafe. If you’re not where your users are, this will be a problem.

2. Ask, don’t tell

Founders love talking about their products, but this is not the time. Your goal is to make the user talk - so just ask and listen. Neither agree nor disagree with the things they say unless specifically asked. If you’re in the habit of saying “yeah” or “that’s right” or nodding a lot in conversations, make an effort to avoid sending too many signals. When you share more information, ask follow up questions. For example - “One of our customers uses our API to automate this use case. Have you thought of doing that?“. “Yes we thought about it, but we’re not doing it because [ learning something new here]”.

If your product is used to solve a specific problem at work, understand the workflow surrounding it. This will help you understand the bigger picture about the problem your user is trying to solve. Know exactly when they reach out for your product, who uses it and how.

3. Use memory, not imagination

Bad questions make the users imagine what they would do in the future. Good questions will reveal their actual behaviour from past incidents. Example - “Do you like working out?” [User thinks about the outcome of working out] “Yes!”. Ask instead - “When was the last time you worked out?” [User thinks about the last time] “Maybe three months ago”.

4. Annoyances

Differentiate minor annoyances from hair on fire problems. They sound like they’re worth solving, but these are the problems they wouldn’t pay money for. How do you identify these? Ask “What have you done to solve this?”. If it happens repeatedly but they haven’t tried to avoid or solve the problem, it’s a minor annoyance.

5. Feedback

Active users will have direct feedback about your product. Collect these toward the end of your conversation. Most times these are bug fixes or UX improvements, but occasionally, they reveal a part of their world you haven’t seen. When they have a feature request, understand why they need it. Your users are experts on the problem, not the solution. When they offer ideas to create solutions, probe into the problem.

When they’re done sharing feedback, ask two specific things:

  1. “What’s the main benefit you get from this product?” - use this to tweak your sales material.

  2. “How disappointed will you be if you could no longer use the product?” - use this to find product market fit.

6. Call to action

Talk about the product and ask them for a favor. This is the last thing you do before you shake hands. If they’re active users, ask for references. If they’re not, get some form of commitment involving money (can they buy it?), time (can they try the product?), or social status (can they tweet about the product?). If they have none to offer, forget all praises you just heard about your product and simply take home your notes.

I learned much of this from the book - The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. I recommend reading it for a practical guide on how to talk to customers when validating ideas.